Staring At the Sun As If Through a Smoke Hole

Miriam Buskirk pulled her mother away from the front room of their cabin and said, “Joshua just sits there staring. He sits so closely and stares at the fire. He lays in the fields at noon and stares at the sun. He stares at the river. He hasn’t said but five words since he got back and I couldn’t understand a one of them.”

Her mother Amanda put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and quietly said, “The poor boy has been living with the savages for nine months. Who knows what they did to Joshua, or what horrors he’s seen. For all we know he saw them kill your and his poor father, my beloved Marcus, and that’s enough to make anyone act queerly when they come back to civilization.”

They both turned when they heard the creak of the chair across the plank floor. They watched as sixteen-year-old Joshua Buskirk rose from where he’d been sitting for the past hour and shuffle toward the door. So close had he been to the flames, they had scorched the skin of his face red. With his head down, he mumbled something into his linsey-woolsey shirt and stepped out into the midday sun.

“There he goes again, Mother. How long do you think this will go on?” Miriam said.

Amanda Buskirk, watching her son disappear over the rise toward the east, seemingly to go meet the sun before noon, said, “Until it doesn’t I guess. At least I don’t worry as much about him running back to the Mohawk again. But just running…?” She left the remainder of that sentence to hang in the breeze from the open doorway just as Joshua disappeared again over the hill.

Joshua strode through the tall grass and wildflowers over the hill and plopped down in the bare spot he had made there after a fortnight of rejoining his mother and sister. As he leaned back, he was proud to see how he still hadn’t given up the beaded moccasins he wore when he returned to the Buskirk farm after traders sent out by the Great Patroon, Van Rensselaer, found him in the village of Ossernenon. 

*  *  *

“We thought you were dead, boy,” the fur trader Markus Eikenboom said to Joshua when he was allowed to speak to the boy. But Joshua was silent. 

“Don’t you know your own tongue anymore, boy?” Eikenboom said to even more silence. “Where is your father, son? The Patroon will want me to buy back his freedom, too.” 

Joshua turned and walked back to the lodge of the family that had adopted him, only saying one word: “kanién:tara.”

“What does that word mean?” Eikenboom asked his Mahican guide.

“River,” was his reply.

*  *  *

Joshua lay on his back and stared into the white disc of the sun as it crossed over the hilltop and moved what little shadow he threw from west-leaning to east. If his mother had let Miriam follow him, she would have seen him blinking as the sunlight teared in his eyes. When she had watched from afar, Miriam had told her mother, “Joshua just lies there like he is dead, Mother.”

After that day’s morning had passed into afternoon, Joshua arose from his place beneath the surrounding high grass and made his way down to the swift-flowing Schoharie Creek. It ran past the Buskirk farm on its way to marry with the river the Dutch had named for his people, for he still thought of the Kanien’kehá:ka as his family. Most especially since the death of his father.

That’s the one part of his old life with Miriam and Mother that stuck with him after he and his father were captured by a Mohawk hunting party while the Buskirk men were setting their own trap lines almost a year before. After the Mohawk warriors brought Joshua and Marcus to Ossernenon, each was suffering from the pace, rough treatment and, especially to Marcus Buskirk, the general arrogance of their captors.

“I am surprised these savages have not yet killed us, Joshua,” his father said on their first night in Ossernenon. 

“Perhaps they will let us go if we just do as they ask, Father,” Joshua said in the glow of the fire in this section of the longhouse where his captors’ family lived.

“Do not, under any circumstances, lower yourself to the level of these savages, Joshua. They are fit only as providers of furs to the Patroon and will be someday be subjugated to our strength soon enough. We should let them know we will not be cowed by their haughty and violent ways.”

“But the one they called Shawátis seems to have treat us better than the other men. Perhaps we can convince him to…”

“Enough, Joshua! We are Christian men and, as such, tower over these animals. Why, with but one dozen militiamen, I could wipe this valley clean of their pestilence,” Marcus Buskirk hissed. “And should I make my escape, that is exactly what I intend to do.”

Joshua stared at the flickers of sunlight on the Schoharie, lost in its hypnotic dance, as if it was how the light twinkled in the eyes of Shawátis’ children. Then he clenched shut his eyes and tried not to see that day when his father, sent out to gather squash and beans with the women, picked up a rock and brought it down upon the head of Shawátis’ oldest son, who was not quite Johua’s age, and had been guarding the women from any intruders from the forest. Marcus then ran from the field and headed for the river, leaving Joshua behind with the other boys, who were learning to make bows from one of the elders.

After a group of the men chased down and brought Joshua’s father back to the village, Marcus Buskirk’s face showed signs of a severe beating, though he was still alive. Not so Shawátis’ son, who had fallen dead from the blow Marcus had delivered.

“I should kill this man who took my son from me,” Shawátis said. “Or perhaps I should kill his son. Or even both, my grief is so deep.”

The men agreed and said the white man deserved any of those punishments. But then the grandfather of Shawátis’ clan stepped forward and said there might be a better way to solve this dilemma with some sort of natural justice.

“Let us make these two fight for the right to live. The boy has grown strong in our family in the months since he came to us. The man has grown more and more of a problem. If, Shawátis, you will agree, we will allow them to fight and then the victor will be allowed to stay, The loser, should he survive, I will leave to your best judgment.”

The men all yelled their consent, since their’s was a warrior society, enlightened and noble, but warriors nonetheless.

“Cannot war father,” Joshua shouted in his broken Mohawk. But Shawátis nodded in approval of the elder’s proposal. As the crowd of warriors pushed the Buskirks to the fire at the end of the longhouse, Joshua didn’t recognize the man through the flames as his father. 

It wasn’t the face swollen and bruised from the beating at the hands of the warriors. It wasn’t the ragged woolen clothes his father never stopped wearing in the months since their capture. It was his eyes, enraged, unknowing, mad, the eyes of a man who had killed a child earlier that day and looked like he would do it again. And then that man jumped through the fire at Joshua.

Knocked back onto the hard-packed dirt floor of the longhouse, Joshua looked up and blinked at the sun shining down into his eyes from the smoke hole in the roof. And then there was that face again.

“You’ll be better off dead than living with these savages, Joshua,” he heard his father say. Marcus Buskirk wrapped his hands around Joshua’s neck and squeezed. Joshua grabbed at his father’s arms to break his grasp. He scratched at the crazed eyes to no avail. Reaching back over his head, Joshua felt the cubby in which his Mohawk family stored firewood. He grabbed a piece of the kindling and swung with whatever strength he had left. His makeshift club found its mark on the side of his father’s head and the older Buskirk, still aching from his previous beating sagged.

Joshua scrambled to his knees and out of the longhouse, gasping and wheezing as many of the longhouse residents followed him into the sunlight. Not far away he could see the Schoharie and for a moment he wondered if his mother, somewhere downriver, knew if he still lived.

He felt his father’s fist on the back of his head and all went dark for a moment. Face down in the dirt, he dimly saw his father’s boots walking next to him and he saw the rough hand in the ragged sleeve pick up another rock and expected to hear the sound of the rock on his skull and that would be it.

But the sound of a rock hitting bone did not proclaim Joshua’s death. Rather it was the end of Shawátis’ war club coming down upon Marcus Buskirk’s head that cracked through Joshua’s foggy consciousness. He saw the men lift the body of the raggedy man who once loved him, often disciplined him like an Old Testament elder, and had just tried to kill him as Abraham would have Isaac, but for the intercession of God. And now God had interceded in Joshua’s death at the hand of his father.

“I did not like that man and I should have killed him when we caught him trapping in our country,” Shawátis said. “A man who would kill a child, one who was protecting his little sisters, is not a man, is not someone who should live with civilized people. I am sorry, young Yoshoo, but he had to die. Now, if you wish, you may join my family.” 

Joshua pondered this each day since he had been returned to his family’s farm on the Schoharie. Every day, just as he had in Ossernenon. But here it felt different, as if he really didn’t belong there anymore. The widower Cornelius De Groot from the farm just downriver from the Buskirks’ had already been sniffing around Amanda for months, according to Joshua’s sister, even with the fate of Marcus still unknown.

A dugout canoe lurched upstream from around the bend in the creek. In it, three young Kanien’kehá:ka were paddling their way back from the mouth of the Schoharie where it emptied in the Mohawk River.

Joshua raced to the river bank, waving and shouted, “Kwe. Hánio kén:thon, iatate’kén:’a.”

The young men looked up to see the white boy greeting them and asking them to come near. Curious, they paddled closer, yet stayed in deeper water.

“Where are you headed, brothers?” Joshua asked.

“Home to Ossernenon. Aren’t you..?”

“Yes, I am the son of Shawátis. Could you take me with you upriver?” Joshua said.

“If you wish,” said the young Mohawk in he bow of the dugout. “Where is it you need to go.”

“Home. To Ossernenon,” Joshua said before he waded into the Schoharie, looked once more at the sun as it began its decline over the hill, behind which his mother placed another log on the fire.

Well, so much for writing a story a day in May. Lost my mojo, as you probably can tell from this very fast free write first draft I began this rainy afternoon. There was no prompt that I know of. I just needed to write a story. So I did. Maybe. Hey, it’s a true first draft. Check your Hemingway quotes for what these are worth.

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April, So Cruel

The rain’s laying
its restorative hands
upon the lands
surrounding my old house.
Our long winter has left
this pillow upon which sets
my only treasure a scratched
and motley patch
of tan, brown and olive.
April’s poetic showers
have only just arrived,
with May a week away.

Poor May, tasked with
completing the work
of two months in its 31 days,
scurrying along April’s
grass shoots, the crocuses
and daffodils, as well as
nursing its own tulips and lilacs.
April’s cold and snowy sloth
has shifted its cruelty
just as an October would
in blowing its leaves
into November’s yard.

This is probably a make-up poem for Day #22 of this month, sliding into the gap caused by my trip to North Carolina. It was supposed to be a “plant” poem, which i guess you could say it is tangentially, but it turned into a mild screed on how this winter has stretched its frozen fingers into a whole lot of the calendar’s Spring. But Nature can’t tell time and that calendar page beginning with A is just more junk for me to rake up this weekend…if it stops raining. Story/poem coming up in a bit for Day #27.

You Are Here

Every Place is a Face,
by Ed Fairburn

There were six of us,
a number now decreased to four,
of which I’m still the oldest.
And while some may think
holding that position
has hereditary privileges, it also
has its responsibilities and duties.
Or at least it did for me.
If you take the role seriously,
you’re the one who will mind
the second or third littlest —
change them, feed them, keep
the roar down to a rumble —
since Mom will be elbow deep
into the youngest’s care.
At seventeen, I ran away
to a college out west (well,
Rochester), giddy with the thought
that finally I’d be alone to fend
for myself and invent the guy
I might really be, or wanted to be.
All I was sure of was he looked
just like me. And that was the problem.
No matter how hard you try,
eventually you’ll look at that guy
in the mirror and see a nose like Dad’s
and your sisters’s, eyes brown as Mom’s
and your brother’s. A map of the place
only your family lives. And you
might as well admit it, that face,
no matter who resides behind it,
always leads you back to your family.
And that’s where you’ll always belong.

For Day #8 of April, 2018’s PAD Challenge, we were to write a family poem. That one cuts deep for me in so many places and so many ways. And I mean cuts. You can see the roads and rivers and other signs of man and God as they trod from my expanding forehead to my sagging chin. Or at least I see where we’ve been. ‘Nuff said.

The Starry Night

Tonight my warm chair wrapped
itself around me in a room
illuminated by a TV
and thoughts of Christmases
I missed, though albums
of photos prove I was there.
Over in the corner stands
the new Christmas tree,
bedazzled in ornaments
of new gold, like Hanukkah gelt,
and in old silver, shiny
and cold as a dead fish
on some frozen shore.
It has yet to be lit
for more than a minute since
that angel alit on its tiptop.
So I withdrew from my chair’s embrace,
crossing the room to plug it in.
But out the window, I saw how
the moon had risen above the trees
and how it ignited swirling breaths
of snow that danced in the dark
like Van Gogh’s stars over Arles.
And above them actual stars
roamed in their courses,
as if looking for Bethlehem
or maybe even Albany.
In that moment, with stellar
guidance from light that traveled
for two thousand years,
traveled past all those nights
I spent without any Sleep to knit up
my ravell’d sleeve of care, woke
warm memories of Christmases past.
Of winking lights in blue eyes
and glittering packages as full of love
as they were knitted sweaters.

Thank You Note

Sorry if you never heard me
thank you, but if I did,
I’d have nothing to thank you for.
You were the one who helped me
find the voice you hear
from this side of your door.
It’s why you see me limping along
these days, leaving a trail
with this inky crutch.
It’s supported my now silent self,
who discovered this gift when
I lost what once meant so much.
So I wrote this Thank You note,
to hang on the imaginary wall
in the virtual square.
I hope you hear my old voice
in it, as if from me here
to you there.
Thanks for helping me speak
to so many people, with nary
a shriek or bellow.
Rather poetic I found it  when you
said goodbye, since it was born
when you first said hello.

Sorry I’ve been gone so long. I’ve been dealing some angels and demons. Most of my own construction. This is a little right-out-of-bed writer’s block breaker that I hope will get me back in the saddle again for the long haul. Perhaps even with some joy.

Another Slice of Blood Orange

 

Sometimes I sit here
in the dark and ask myself
why I started this,
this burning of lifetime
spitting words into the air
like orange pits or
like blood from a split lip.
Wasn’t for any notoriety
since no one was supposed
to read them but me
and a very few who wondered
what the hell this was about.
And it wasn’t to write books,
lord knows, since I’d forgotten
how to read them years ago,
let alone write them.
It wasn’t, like you said,
for the approbation, since
I never belong with anyone.
Couldn’t be for what you call
stroking, since I’m unused to,
uncomfortable with touching.
I guess it was for a kind of
recognition, though, because
over these past ten years,
I might finally have recognized
my futile, inky-souled nature,
the guy spitting out orange pits
and blood to myself for myself.

My take on Robert Lee Brewer’s Wednesday poetry prompt in Writer’s Digest last week. He wanted a Recognition poem. I found the prompt and poem in my sleeplessness around 3:00AM this morning. Ahhh…throwback to the dark solitude of my Insomniac Poet days.

Frameless

I don’t wonder so much
about yesterday and tomorrow anymore.
The uncertainty of my margins,
of then and then, of here and there,
of that you and this you and
me and another me, have become
unnecessary fussiness in
my frameless life.
What is certainty in a world
built upon imperfection?
I can rhyme time with mine;
mine is what this time is.
I sometimes think of you
from those days and don’t worry
about a future that never could be.
You think you escaped
my gallery of conundrums,
but I’d ripped you free from those
confining frames years ago.

In serious need of writing something after two weeks-plus on the road helping with a new granddaughter, I dashed this off between drowses last night. What’s it mean? That’s your call, kind reader.